August 18, 2012; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Athletics starting pitcher Bartolo Colon (21) pitches against the Cleveland Indians during the fourth inning at Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Ed Szczepanski-US PRESSWIRE

Bartolo Colon is Going Back to Cali-Off the Radar

The Oakland A’s have (re-)signed Bartolo Colon to a 1 year 3 million dollar deal with performance bonuses that could equal up to 6 million dollars.

Colon was suspended for PEDs in 2012, and will still have to miss the first five games of the regular season in 2013 (so basically one start, assuming he makes the rotation out of spring training) The suspension somewhat ruined what had been a really good (and somewhat controversial story already with the stem cell surgery) comeback story in which Colon had resurrected his career.

After not throwing a professional pitch in 2010 (and after injury interrupted stints with the Red Sox and White Sox the previous two seasons), Bartolo Colon has had (in 2011-2012 with the Yankees and Athletics) a 94 FIP – with a 91 ERA -, which is better than Edwin Jackson, Justin Masterson, and Ryan Dempster (and just slightly worse than Mat Latos, Tim Hudson, and Vance Worley). He has struck out 17 % of the batters he has faced and walked just 4.7% of batters, making him less of a power pitcher and more of a control pitcher. This isn’t all that different from what he has been in his career, other than 2000-2001 with the Indians, other than he is limiting his walks better than he really ever has before.

The main reactions I saw to the Bartolo Colon re-signing by the Athletics were: 1) That is a lot of money for a 39 year old pitcher coming off PED suspension, 2) He may block some of the younger Athletic pitchers from a rotation spot/make it harder to re-sign Brandon McCarthy, and 3) This is a good rather cheap and low risk signing for a pitcher that has been having success in the Majors. The question that I was interested in looking at was whether or not Colon could have the same amount of success he did in 2011-2012. If he can (and does), then 3-6 million dollars is a steal for a mid-rotation type pitcher. Perhaps a very simplistic way to rephrase the question would be: So were the statistics fluky because of PEDs, or can we expect basically the same Colon in 2013? In the 2011 season, the New York Yankees, with all of their payroll and star power, were somewhat saved by Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia (and Ivan Nova as well). With Phil Hughes injured/imploding, A.J. Burnett continuing to show that he wasn’t a fit in New York, and Andy Pettitte (at least temporarily) retired, the cheap signings of Garcia (1.5 million) and Colon ($900,000) proved to be brilliant (or really lucky). The Yankees decided to keep one, and as Colon faded down the stretch (with ghastly wOBAs against of .362, .356, .370 in July, August, September) the Yankees decided to give Freddy Garcia 4 million dollars to stay and Colon ended up signing with the Athletics for 2 million dollars. Garcia ended up pitching at a replacement level for the Yankees, mainly in a long relief role while Colon had success with the A’s.

Depending on how you classify his fastball, it has been somewhere between 91.8 to 92.4 MPH. This is just below Yankee hero Hiroki Kuroda and just above Tommy Hunter (who throws much harder in the bullpen than he does as a starter).

Colon basically throws all fastballs, and all strikes. He throws a 4-seamer, but also a sinker. To go along with this, he throws a rare slider and changeup.

Going on the non Pitch F/X pitch type (that conflates all cutters, sinkers, and moving fastballs into fastballs), Bartolo Colon throws the most fastballs in baseball at 85.8 %. The only other one above 80% is sinker-baller Justin Masterson and there are just 7 (counting Colon and Masterson) that have thrown 70% fastballs since 2011.

His occasional slider is about a normal velocity for a slider at 83.57 MPH and his changeup averages .01 MPH harder.

Colon is tied with the MLB lead (with Brad Penny) over the last two years in contact percentage. He obviously isn’t trying to strike you out. The biggest example of this in 2012 was when he threw 38 straight strikes, which was the most in at least 2 decades. There is really nothing in his stuff that suggests that he should have been a good pitcher over the last couple of years.

It isn’t hard contact though, as Colon he is one of the best at limiting line drives. In fact, he has an xOPS of .682 over the last two years versus a .723 real OPS. That doesn’t even factor in the infield flies that Colon gets, which is nearly in elite territory. My guess is that this is a little bit of randomness, and a little bit of Yankee Stadium. Colon had a .797 OPS against at home in 2011, and a .713 OPS on the road. It was clear that his pitching to contact style did not play well in the hitter friendly ballpark. In 2012, Colon had a .650 OPS against at home, and .749 OPS on the road. His style clearly played better in the pitcher friendly Oakland Coliseum.

Was actually hit in the face in his last DWL start and had to go to the hospital.

I went back and watched what I believe was his first outing in the Dominican Winter League this year (you should be able to watch it here. It is the top video, and you should be able to sort of fast forward through the pre-game stuff). I am making two assumptions: 1) he is no longer using PEDs, therefore won’t fail another test and it is no longer helping him pitch and 2) Colon is fine, which seems to be what all the reports I have read assume, after getting hit in the face by a comebacker. It was not a Brandon McCarthy situation, as he did not get hit in the head and obviously didn’t need emergency surgery.

As expected, there was nothing in the right-handers delivery that looks different than it did during the regular season. When the radar gun was on, he was throwing about 88-89 MPH on his fastball. So perhaps his velocity is a little down, but I am not sure I would put too much into that radar gun reading, especially since it wasn’t always working. I do wonder how much a tick of velocity loss would affect Colon though since he relies on it so much. It could really hurt him. If PEDs can play a significant role in velocity (results seem mixed from what I have read, but I am obviously not well versed in the research), then it would seem that Colon would lose some velocity. It is not like he relied on big time velocity, but his average to solid velocity along with an ability to move the ball around helped him live in the zone.

Also as expected, he threw a four-seamer up high, and sinker down low, locating both of them reasonably well. It did seem like his sinker command wavered some with runners on base (he did pitch worse, .766 OPS against, with runners in scoring position in 2012, but the sample size wasn’t large).

He threw hischange for strikes (it hit 84 MPH) and it still moves both vertically and horizontally. The movement is not really “late” though. Even the sinker doesn’t have what you would call “sharp break”. They have this obvious break, but hitters still seem to have a problem with it. He was really fastball heavy in his outing, as you would expect. I didn’t really even see the slider. Colon was staying away from righties and coming inside to lefties (so working glove side). If you watched Colon pitch as a prospect and he showed that kind of stuff, you would probably give him a back of the rotation of perhaps even a middle relief grade. However, because of his pitchability, he has shown that he can be successful in that way. It definitely looks like groundball stuff (though perhaps there is some selection bias here as he got a lot of grounders in the outing I watched).

Even if he is roughly the same performance wise, one wonders how it will effect his durability. While he didn’t come close to 200 innings in either 2011 or 2012 (in 2011 thanks to struggling down the stretch and getting pulled from the rotation by the Yankees, and in 2012 because of the suspension), he did throw over 150 in both seasons. This is more innings than Brandon McCarthy (who has had shoulder problems his entire career) has thrown in that time.

While the A’s have rotation depth, it is probably overstated. Brett Anderson and Brandon McCarthy (assuming the later re-signs) have had issues with injuries their entire career, and while it seems you can count on Jarrod Parker, average to below average stuff makes the expectation of success of A.J. Griffin, Dan Straily, and Tom Milone somewhat tempered. Travis Blackley and Tyson Ross both made starts and are dark horse candidates to return to the rotation, but you don’t want to have to count on them. Brad Peacock could be ready for the Majors soon, as well as Sonny Gray (A.J. Cole and Ian Krol won’t be ready next year, which makes talking about them with Colon irrelevant). So there is some concern that Bartolo Colon could block those pitchers from reaching the Majors and make them wait for no real reason. I find this unlikely. If the A’s aren’t competitive for some reason next year, they won’t be giving starts to Bartolo Colon. If they are, and Colon is a big reason for that success, then I think you have to keep riding him (and they most likely would). This can all be somewhat irrelevant though. Pitchers break and get hurt. No one knows that more than Colon, who has some major durability questions (as mentioned above). Depth is important. “You can’t have too much pitching” is the old saying.

One unconventional solution, especially with the durability concerns, would be to use Colon out of the bullpen. He would be a somewhat expensive specialist reliever, but he had pretty big splits in 2012. He struck out less righties than lefties, but he walked just .7% of the right-handed batters he faced, for an insane 18/1 K/BB. His HR/9IP against lefties was a pretty bad 1.60. Against righties, it was a .37. Using him as a reliever would not only preserve his arm, allow younger pitchers to take over the rotation without being “blocked”, and allow Colon to pitch with the platoon advantage much more often, which make him a very successful pitcher. Colon’s skillset would work well out of the ‘pen since he basically just throws the fastball over and over again, and it may help him throw harder since he won’t have to throw as long. Then if he is needed, the Athletics could move him to the rotation as a somewhat fresh arm.

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